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how to approach a poem

John Keats

 Painted by William Hilton

Here, The Muse Of Literature offers a method, a practical example, and a few suggestions for how to get the most from reading or hearing a poem.

About this feature

The aim of this feature is to provide a few pointers to people who want to better understand and experience a poem when they approach it.

Poetic analysis

Why bother to analyze poetry?

The Muse Of Literature offers a few suggestions on how to get the most from reading or hearing a poem.

A poem of substance is an expression of art. Where poetry is concerned, art appreciation is partly the act of gaining insight into the qualities of a poem and giving them their proper value; partly, too, art appreciation is the act of gaining a clear perception of a poem's aesthetic qualities and experiencing them as a totality.

After you analyze a poem, you know it for what it is. You clearly understand its meaning and message; you see its beauty; you react more keenly to its emotion and gain insight into its spiritual, intellectual, and aesthetic properties. You appreciate it as a whole.

Benefits like these come from deconstructing and reconstructing a poem. In other words, they come from analysis.

the approach

The Muse's approach consists of two elements: 1) a checklist, and 2) a procedure for approaching a poem with the aid of the checklist. The checklist cites a few aspects of poetry to think about before, during, and after you read a poem.

The checklist and procedure probably won't revolutionize your approach to reading poems but they will give you a few things to do that will increase your enjoyment, appreciation, and insight with only small cost of time and effort. Try them and you will discover the value of approaching a poem with an analytical mind-set.

The Muse's pointers are not a method for analyzing poetry. If you want to get more from the poems you read, perhaps you should consider exploring a poetry analysis resource developed by a literary scholar or educator. Such resources typically consume an entire book, school semester, or seminar; they are much more robust than the approach The Muse offers here but they demand a greater personal investment of time and energy.

If you see a future for yourself that includes poetry analysis, The Muse suggests that you investigate the poetic analysis resources shown in the ETAF Recommends section, below on this page.

the checklist and procedure—how they work

The Muse's way of approaching poems consists of two parts: 1) a checklist, and 2) a procedure for reading a poem with the aid of the checklist.

Checklist

See The Muse's checklist, below on this page. Every poem you will encounter can be described by the aspects of poetry that are on this list; all poems demonstrate every one of these aspects.

Each aspect on the checklist is followed by a few samples that illustrate its nature. How do these samples help?

Take as an example the aspect of structure. The structure of a poem is its organization, arrangement, or framework. Every poem has a structure and there are certain kinds of poetic structures that are particularly well established in Literature. One such structure is called the sonnet.

Any poem that follows the organization scheme for sonnets is called a sonnet. Therefore, a sonnet is a kind of poem as well as poetic structure. The sonnet appears on the checklist under the aspect of structure.

According to accepted literary practice, to be a sonnet a poem must have the following structure:

All sonnets must have 14 lines and each line must be written in iambic pentameter. In addition, its rhyme scheme must be one of the following: either 1) three quatrains followed by a couplet (called the common English or Shakespearean sonnet), or 2) an octave and a sestet (called the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet). (A quatrain is a group of four lines, usually with alternate rhymes. An octet is a group of eight lines; a sestet is a group of six lines.) The rhyme scheme is considered part of the structure.

The samples under the aspects help by clarifying what the aspects mean.

To approach a poem in the manner The Muse suggests, it's not necessary to be able to give a name to its every aspect, although naming a poem's aspects helps. Nor is it necessary to know every detail of every aspect of a poem, although the more you know about the aspects of a poem, the more benefit you will receive.

In The Muse's approach, it's not necessary to know the difference between a Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet; but it is important to recognize the general nature of each of a poem's aspects. For example, it is important to know that every poem has a structure and to be able to deduce it for the poem you're reading; it's important to know that every poem has rhyme and imagery and to be able to spot the rhymes and the images.

Aspects of poems: the muse's checklist

—Analyze Poems from These Points of View—

Structureorganization

  • Sonnet

  • Ballade

  • Terza Rima

  • Rondel

  • Quatrain

  •  Villanelle

  •  Haiku

Typea particular combination of theme and style

  • Lyric

  • Epic

  • Allegory

  • Ode

  • Narrative

Meterrhythmic pattern

  • Iambic tetrameter

  • Trochaic hexameter

  • Dactylic trimester

  • Anapestic dimeter

Rhymeidentity of sound in different parts of a verse

  • End rhyme

  • Internal rhyme

  • Masculine rhyme

  • Feminine rhyme

  • Alliteration

  •  Assonance

  • Consonance

  • Near rhyme

  • Sight rhyme

  • Onomatopoeia

Imageryfigures of speech

  • Simile

  • Metaphor

  • Metonymy

  • Synecdoche

  • Apostrophe

  • Hyperbole

  • Oxymoron

Periodliterary era in which a poem written

  • Elizabethan

  • Italian Renaissance

  • Victorian

  • Romantic

  • Modern

Themethe author’s intention or subject matter; the unifying idea or motif

  • Death

  • Love

  • War

  • Childhood

 

the Muse's procedure

The Muse suggests that you follow the procedure outlined below when you approach a poem.
  1. First, read the poem straight through quickly to get acquainted with it. Consider reading it aloud or listening to it on a recording.
  2. Next, read the poem again, this time slowly and carefully. (Remember that the title is part of the poem.)
  3. After you finish reading the poem, take time to examine it:
    • Check the poem against each aspect on The Muse's checklist below, line by line and stanza by stanza.
    • Paraphrase: restate the poem in your own words, line by line and stanza by stanza.
    • Summarize everything you've discovered and experienced from the poem as a whole: meaning, theme, how it affected you, author's intent, etc.
    • Note any relevant comments or observations that may occur to you.
  4. Now, read the poem again all the way through with the aspects on the checklist in mind but without referring to the list. Confirm the analysis you made in Step3.
  5. Next, completely forget about the poem's aspects and concentrate on experiencing the poem as a whole. Read or listen to it to enjoy the experience. Look for its sounds, images, and ideas. Think about what it means and says as you read. Observe how it affects you. Revel in its beauty.
  6. Finally, compare your first reading of the poem with your last. Note any differences that may be due to the procedure.

 

—tip—

on identifying Aspects of poems

Any book about understanding and analyzing poetry can help you identify the aspects of a poem you are analyzing. For suggestions, see the ETAF Recommends section on this page, below.

The Muse provides a glossary of literary terms which will help you define many of the terms on the checklist.

  • Look up a literary term in The Muse's Glossary Of Literary Terms: click here.

  • The Glossary is explained at The Muse's page called Literary Terminology - A Glossary Of Literary Terms: click here.

how to approach a poem—A practical Example

Nothing can help clear fog from the mind like a practical example. The Muse Of Literature has analyzed a poem with the aid of The Muse's Checklist and Procedure to demonstrate how to apply The Muse's method for approaching poems.

See an example of The Muse's method for approaching a poem based on A. E. Housman's well-known poem, Loveliest of Trees. First The Muse analyzes the poem; then you do.

click here

approach a poem Now

Choose a poem you are familiar with and try reading it with the aid of The Muse's procedure for approaching a poem. The Muse suggests that you choose a short, simple poem to start. Notice whether reading a poem with the aid of this approach results in an improvement over your previous readings.

Choose a poem to approach now at The Muse's feature called The Poetry Corner.

click here

******

If you prefer to analyze a poem that's not listed at this page, try searching the Internet for one you like.

If you like approaching a poem in this way, try reading a few more short, simple poems. Accustom yourself to The Muse's approach and become  proficient in it before you tackle complex, sophisticated, or lengthy poems.


Robert Frost

explore other Approaches to poetry

The Muse invites you to compare The Muse's approach to poetry with that of others:

  • For an approach similar to that of The Muse called Types Fast Method, see this document in Microsoft WORD format titled How to Approach a Poem by S. Goddard: click here.
  • Looking for a quick and easy method for analyzing a poem? Try the How to Analyze a Poem page at the enotes.com web site. It will show you what to do in 10-easy steps (or so they say): click here.
  • Dr. Debora B. Schwartz of the English department at California Polytechnic State University has devised an 11-point approach to poetry called An Approach to Reading and Writing About Poems. See Dr. Schwartz's approach at her web site now: click here.
  • Visit the Quiddity web site for Andrew Kern's short paper called An Effective Approach To Reading a Poem: click here.
  • See the ETAF Recommends section on this page, below, for a book titled Understanding Poetry: An Anthology For College Students by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren.

For a "look inside" experience, visit the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing page at the University of Pennsylvania web site. There you'll find a page taken straight from the Brooks and Warren book. This excerpt contains valuable reflections about the nature of poetry, some analytical observations, and a slew of revealing comments from the authors about how to approach and analyze poetry.

  • See a page from the Brooks and Warren book: click here.

  • The page called How to Read a Poem at the Poets.org web site offers an excellent treatment of how to analyze poetry. It not only suggests techniques for getting started with a poem; it gives you an appreciation for the fact that there's more to analyzing a poem than uncovering its aspects: there's a good deal of judgment and good sense.

    • Visit this Poets.org page now and you'll find some excellent insights: click here.

more to explore

The Muse's checklist contains aspects of poetry that are examined at greater length in other Muse Of Literature features. You may want to gain additional insight by exploring these features:

  • Explore literary forms at the feature called Literary Forms: click here.
  • Explore literary genres at the feature called Literary Genres: click here.
  • Explore literary forms at the feature called Literary Periods: click here.
  • Explore literary forms at the feature called Sounds Of poetry—About Rhyme: click here.

ETAF Recommends

Perrine's book, Sound and Sense, is a classic being kept up to date by Thomas Arp and Greg Johnson. Pricey, but an invaluable resource for understanding poetry. Look for less expensive versions at the same page.

How Does a Poem Mean, the title of Ciardi's and Williams' book, is not the result of a grammatical error. The title suggests it's purpose: to explain how to analyze a poem as a whole to discover its underlying meaning. Consistent with The Muse's approach. Out of print but still available. One of the best.

Understanding Poetry is a standard in college-level survey courses for English majors. Formal and expensive, as you would expect from a text book, but authoritative. You can take a look inside this book: See the Compare Notes section on this page, above, for a link that will take you to a web page where you can see a sample of the kind of analyses it contains.

The Art of Poetry: How to Read a Poem, by Shira Wolosky, is not yet a classic like the other books that The Muse recommends above, but it's more recent and less expensive.

 


 


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